Ever wish you could ask others how they spend their money? We’re going there. In our “Cash Confessions” series, LearnVest breaks down the numbers to show how real people spend their paychecks, and whether their habits are financially on track — or off the rails.
Below, a Reno, Nevada, mom decides to keep close tabs on her Christmas costs in order to avoid the usual post-holiday spending hangover. Here’s how she did.
During the holidays, I have a strong urge to buy my loved ones everything their hearts desire, but my income simply doesn’t allow for it (especially with three young kids, who have many, many wants on their wish lists). As such, I always approach that time of year with a clear budget.
That fact that I have a budget, though, doesn’t mean that I actually follow it. In fact, I veer off the tracks nearly every year, and end up “borrowing” money from other buckets to compensate. I’m not always sure how that happens, so this year, I tried something different: I tracked every last penny I spent over the holidays to see where my best-laid plans diverged from my spending reality.
My husband gets paid three times in November, so we typically dedicate most of one paycheck to holiday spending. This year, I set my budget to $1,800, which is about $300 more than usual, but I thought I’d estimate on the higher end to be more realistic. Here’s what happened.

1. Gifts for the Kids

What I Budgeted: $450
I got to this figure by allotting $150 per kid. Last year we were guilt-ridden over the heartache our kids felt after moving, so we over-compensated with an over-the-top visit from Santa, when one gift alone was $300. This year we wanted to get far away from that. This figure allowed for a reasonable Santa gift, along with a toy, book and some clothes for each child.
What We Spent: $365.39
We decided to forgo clothes in favor of a group gift from Santa. Going more low-key this Christmas was definitely the right choice. Last year, each gift the kids opened just made them more ravenous for the next one, and they didn’t seem to enjoy any single thing they received. This year, instead of whining when they reached the end of their pile of presents, they played contentedly the whole day through.

2. Gifts for the Spouses

What I Budgeted: $300 ($150 each)
I’ve never felt the need to spend much more than this. All I ever want is a couple good books to read and something warm to put on my feet. My husband might have more lavish gifts on his wish list (like bicycles costing thousands of dollars), but he’s always been plenty satisfied with what I get him.
What We Spent: $248.30 ($131.67, $116.63)
As the month went on, I went back and forth over the budget a lot in my head, wondering if I should trim it even further. So when it came time to shopping for each other, I suggested to my husband, Rob, that we spend $120 each instead. He came in just over budget to get me some slippers and sleepwear. I came in just under getting him a new fishing pole, slippers and some small camping gear. No one was disappointed.

3. Gifts for Family

What I Budgeted: $630
We’ve got a lot of extended family, and we see them all for Christmas. And the older we get, the more my husband and I want to spend on our parents, who have given us so much. (Well really, we want to spoil everyone, but we have to do so within reason.)
What We Spent: $558.08
Since we budgeted on the high end here, we were able to come in about $75 under on gifts for around a dozen family members — which helped us expand our “Christmas fun” budget to include a family ice-skating trip and some overpriced cocoa and soft pretzels.

4. Gifts for Friends

What I Budgeted: $80
A few friends and I usually get together and exchange gifts over a potluck dinner, and I try to set a spending cap of $20 per person. It’s not so much about the gifts though; we’re mostly there for the food.
What We Spent: $17.29
After making my Christmas budget, I realized I had already bought my friends their gifts earlier in the year (score!) so I simply had to add in some gift wrap, and a little extra something for my bestie.

5. Gifts for Teachers

What I Budgeted: $30
I adore my kids’ teachers and planned to go with a more personal gift this year, baking specialty breads and making a cranberry spread. This amount was supposed to buy the supplies for my Martha Stewart moment.
What We Spent: $60
So about that DIY project? Let’s just say I burned lots of things. Gift cards saved the day.

6. Special Events

What I Budgeted: $40
Our regular Christmas tradition is to take our kids to the local railroad museum for a ride on the Santa Train, and then go to a bakery for a treat. This works out to $20 for tickets, $20 for treats, and lots of fun.
What We Spent: $112.06
In addition to our $40 train ride, we went on that family ice skating trip I mentioned. But because we covered that with the $75 we saved on family gifts, I didn’t consider myself having gone over budget. And it was oh so worth it.

7. Decorations

What I Budgeted: $20
We have a full load of decorations already, so I figured we didn’t need much more — maybe just a bit of wrapping paper.
What We Spent: $118.27
I blame my husband completely for this. He lost (then eventually found) our outdoor lights, and bought our 7-year-old a large and overpriced fake tree for his bedroom. We also ended up needing a Costco-sized pack of wrapping paper.

8. Stocking Stuffers/Pets

What I Budgeted: $100
We usually get our stocking stuffers at Target, and pick up a little treat for the cat and dog while we’re there. It rarely costs us less than $160, but I was feeling optimistic. This year I decided to forgo the usual knick-knacks that end up at Goodwill, and opted for socks, a small toy (Hot Wheels, a My Little Pony) and some snacks.
What We Spent: $100.09
Nine cents over, but close enough.

9. Charitable Donations

What I Budgeted: $150
I didn’t know exactly who we’d be donating to, but I figured we’d find places to give throughout the season.
What We Spent: $150
We used up all of our giving budget, mostly to causes that help kids, refugees and animals in need. Next year, this section of our budget will expand.
Total Budget: $1,800.00
Total Spent: $1,729.48

My Takeaway

In the end, we came in $70.52 under my original budget. I was pretty happy with how we shifted our spending, with the exception of the extra Christmas decor. Turns out, spending more money on gifts doesn’t make for a better Christmas. In fact, looking back at last year’s over-gifting fiasco, I can safely say that “more money, more problems” rings true — especially when buying for the kids.
The best money we spent was definitely on the experiences. Ice skating with my kids for their first time at the rink where I learned to skate was pure magic. Although I didn’t stick to my original number there, we made a great adjustment, in a way that didn’t make us feel guilty. Our budget shifted to reflect our priorities — and it looks pretty good, if you ask me.